Justin Time: Madubuike Poised for Year 2 Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens

Tale of the Tape Justin Time: Madubuike Poised for Year 2

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This a Justin Madubuike piece.

But first things first: I don’t think even Baltimore Ravens fans understand just how good Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and Brandon Williams are. All three are special in different ways and play with a brilliant blend of competence and unselfishness that make the unit’s sum greater than its parts.

The original “Monstars” from the movie Space Jam came in very different shapes and sizes with very different roles – ranging from Shawn Bradley (who you might have missed was tragically paralyzed in bike accident earlier this year) to Baltimore’s own Muggsy Bogues. The self-proclaimed new Monstars trio of Campbell, Wolfe and Williams bring their own individual secret stuff, to each contribute to the unit in their own way.

But there are only three of them, the Ravens could really do with a (keeping the basketball theme here) fab five. Or at least four. I don’t know who grants you membership to the Ravens version of the Monstars – or what the criteria is, but Madubuike must be getting pretty close. He has a ceiling to rival all of them in all-around play, and that excites me the most.

There is a decent amount of local hype around Madubuike and an interesting rumor about how he came to be a Raven in the 2020 NFL Draft. Sitting at pick 60 at the bottom of the second round, the Ravens may have been targeting WR Denzel Mims who went one pick before them at pick 59, to the New York Jets. This could of course be a false narrative, but we know the Ravens trade back when they don’t have one or two players sticking out far higher than others on their board. So when they do trade back, checking who was just taken is an interesting thought exercise on who they might have wanted.

I find it fun to think about the path not traveled; perhaps the Ravens end up with another, otherwise-to-this-point underwhelming, tall and fast receiver. They’d perhaps still be waiting for a breakout from him, rather than drafting Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace, getting the exciting makeover of the receiver room that we have seen this year.

(I’m not actually writing Mims off yet, now that he’s no longer in an Adam Gase offense.)

Perhaps they don’t trade back as far as they did and get a different type of weapon for Wink’s defense in Jeremy Chinn who was selected between the original pick at 60 and the eventual pick at 72. It’s only fun for a little while though, to think about the path not traveled, because the compass was pointed at the Defensive Line and they may have found a buried treasure in Madubuike.

Any list of breakout players for 2021 across the whole league should probably at least mention Madubuike. I dived into all of his 2020 tape to understand his trajectory as a player and what the Ravens might be able to expect from his sophomore year.

In late August, Madubuike went down with a knee injury in a scrimmage at an empty M&T Bank stadium, keeping him off the field until the Bengals game in Week 5. He immediately started playing at least a third of the snaps on defense in a rotational role. He later had COVID and missed two further games. This kind of interrupted season with very little pre-season preparation possible due to COVID, should really temper your expectations for Madubuike’s rookie season.

And while you were right to, with regards to his production, you weren’t with his play which immediately resembled that of a solid NFL starter, especially for a two-gapper on a defensive line like the Ravens.

Early in the year, his raw tools for success showed up even in his first snaps in the league – he has remarkable lateral agility and foot quickness for his size – this kind of movement ability at 293 lbs, marks him out as having the ceiling of an elite player at the position. But this isn’t enough alone, as many have found out before him. The play below showcases his explosion and athleticism – with remarkable close on the RB from the back-side.

You can also add balance to his explosion, foot speed and lateral ability. He is able to turn seemingly lost battles into wins – he is a flexible athlete and with his balance he can recover from compromising situations and turn that potential loss into leverage to drive his blocker backwards.

To be successful on the defensive line, you have to marry this quickness and explosion with a high level of mental processing that allows you to do what defensive line 101 would start with – get upfield. Usually this kind of ability to move quickly at the snap is limited by young defenders’ ability to trust their eyes and play fast.

Madubuike had his share of troubles early on, struggling to position himself against reach blocks, or to quickly diagnose a back-side cut block on an outside zone run, but these were infrequent as the season wore on and he began to see things for the second and third time. In fact his lateral movement meant that as he started to more consistently read reach blocks he would be able to get a jump on them and be a disciplined weapon against outside zone runs.

And even during these early snaps, you could see the remarkable upfield burst that has you dreaming of how good this guy could be in the future. He’s out of his stance quickly and his first step is especially good.

The place you want to see this show up to most devastating effect, is as a pass rusher. In that phase, he shows some impressive moves and athletic traits that could project to being an interior presence against the pass, hence why the Ravens kept him on the field for some of these snaps. His rush plan is already taking shape and he has some counters in his arsenal. For instance, using his considerable power starting with an initial two-hand shuck, if his opponent fends this off with a powerful initial punch of his own, Madubuike then follows this up with a long-arm counter. If this isn’t successful he’ll look to transition out of the long-arm to move upfield but what’s most impressive on display here are his physical attributes in his bend for his size used in conjunction with his long arms.

His hands are fast and powerful, and though they currently lack some polish in terms of the development of his moves, he’s already a handful to deal with in pass rush situations because of the violence with which he attacks his man and the leverage he can gain quickly. There isn’t yet much finish to his pass rush, but one feels comfortable projecting that he will learn to close on the quarterback due to his play speed, and he has already learned that the violence in his hands that should allow him to keep the offensive lineman off his body.

The clip below probably shows his potential and areas for development as a pass rusher in equal measure. He has good upfield burst and a good initial plan, to win inside against Joel Bitonio with his hands and lateral quickness. He gets to the corner and the ball is out fast, but his final rip doesn’t give him much finish and Bitonio can recover somewhat with his power-step.

He is a developing pass-rusher – he’s a long way from his ceiling, and we need to temper any Aaron Donald-like expectations (that guy has reset the market on Defensive Tackles). But as his snap count increases, the Ravens can expect consistent pocket push and I would expect 5-6 sacks regularly every season. He’ll be a more-than-valuable contributor on passing downs.

As he’s reading run first, he was most dangerous early on when defending the run as a penetrator – getting in the backfield in a hurry and affecting the ball carrier. Harnessing this penetration was a difficult task for him early on, as he could lose gap discipline. Wrecking-ball defensive linemen are prone to do this when they don’t play as part of the unit. Importantly, this wasn’t because of an undisciplined predilection for freelancing, a la Earl Thomas, and was more a feature of him playing too fast without knowing better. The Ravens coaching staff got him settled quickly, and he increasingly started to play as a setup guy for others – using his remarkable power and play strength to wreak havoc for opposing blockers.

This slight deficiency in terms of gap integrity was still showing up towards the end of the season, at times dominating his guy but turning around after the play to see that the play on the ball carrier was made in spite of his play and not because of it. See below:

But he has the potential to be dominant on his own against the running game. He will take on blockers with urgency, getting his hands on & locking out to gain the leverage that his powerful frame affords him. Overwhelming power at the line of scrimmage is a feature of his play regularly, not giving ground and often putting the lineman on skates. He keeps his eyes in the backfield, dominates his guy using his length and leverage and works across to the ball carrier, impacting the play.

He became much more proficient over the season at occupying the double-team, interspersed with reps where he shows an ability to split it and get to the ball carrier, clean, to make a play. And finally, we see plays where he will get in the backfield in the worst way for the offense, taking both him and his guy into the running lane with no chance for the back to recover anything from the play, even if Madubuike is not the guy to make a play.

The Ravens seem to rightly have expectations for a year two jump from Madubuike. I think he becomes an integral part of another Raven run-stuffing defensive line with very little growth from who he currently is. What is most exciting is how quickly he develops as a disruptor against the pass to aid the young corps of pass-rushers.

In this, I think the Ravens can expect more of a steady development curve and perhaps not a huge leap in year two, but I’d expect to see some progress and an increasing pressure count.

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About James Ogden

A long-time Ravens fan and writer, James was an early starter in journalism as Editor of his school and college newspapers, with his most enjoyable time spent on the sports desks. He didn’t pursue a media career, getting a “real” job instead, but he finds every opportunity to do what he loves. You’ll find him most passionate about the intersection of data analysis, player evaluation and team-building, writing mostly about the Draft and player evaluation from a Ravens perspective. As a player of the game, to put his performance in scouting lingo, he was a core special teams guy only. More from James Ogden
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